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Who's Included in the LGBTQ Past?

Many historical locations and sources shed light on LGBTQ pasts. Some identities, groups and periods have been better recorded than others and are therefore better understood.

We know much more about men who desired other men than any other group. LGBTQ historical records often focus on famous 'elites' and white gay men.

Lesbian, bisexual, trans, working-class, disabled, black, and ethnically diverse voices within queer history are less visible. More research is still needed to better understand these diverse LGBTQ histories.

Historical terminology to describe sexual and gender identities has changed over time. ‘Homosexual’ is a word coined in the 19th century, while ‘gay’ and ‘trans’ are even more recent.

Gay's The Word Bookshop
Gay's The Word Bookshop, London, 2015 © Vera Janev


LGBTQ histories have been dominated by men. Only male homosexual acts were criminalised in Britain – although criminalising ‘gross indecency’ between women was discussed in Parliament in 1921. Lesbian communities have long existed, but the lack of legislative, criminal and reform records regarding sex between women has made their histories less visible.

Painting of Lady Strachan and Lady Warwick making love in a park, while their husbands look on with disapproval
'Love-a-la-Mode, or Two dear Friends': Lady Strachan and Lady Warwick making love in a park, while their husbands look on with disapproval. Political satire c. 1820 © Wellcome Library, London


Many people in the past experienced great fluidity in their sexual lives. Queer men and women often chose to marry. Marriage might have offered protection or offered financial stability. Others married out of genuine emotional commitment and love. But we can’t necessarily call them bisexual. A self-conscious bisexual identity is relatively recent, emerging in the later 20th-century.

A letter from 'Cyril Coeur de Leon' to 'Billy' about visiting the Caravan Club, London
A letter from 'Cyril Coeur de Leon' to 'Billy' about visiting the Caravan Club, London. Cyril was bisexual and explained to Billy that "I am married and have a little girl two years of age, and I still like girls occasionally, there are very few boys with whom I want to have an affair" © The National Archives, MEO3/758


There are far more historical sources about the lives of middle-class LGBTQ people than others. When we do learn about the lives of working-class LGBTQ people, it is often because of their encounters with the law. We rarely hear their own voices, and instead rely on criminal and medical records.

Men seated or standing in Trafalgar Sqaure
In 1964 the People identified Trafalgar Square, London as a centre for male prostitution. The terrace below the National Gallery was even known as the 'meat rack' for this reason. Courtesy of James Gardiner

Race and Ethnicity

Black and ethnic minority people have been part of our national story for centuries. However, historical and contemporary attitudes towards race, ethnicity and migration mean that black and ethnic minority voices are not easily found in the past. Excavations of archives for these histories and voices are being carried out but much more needs to be done.

Women on a march
Lesbian Strength March, 22 June 1985, London © Photofusion/REX/Shutterstock


Pride of Place uses the term ‘queer’ as an inclusive term. In the past, ‘queer’ has been used negatively but also for self-identification. Today many use the term to acknowledge the complexities of gender and sexuality not addressed by LGBT.

Video: Author Sarah Waters discusses historical terminology and the use of the word 'queer'

Trans and Gender Crossing

Some people in the past challenged the social frameworks  of gender. However, trans identities as we understand them today are a recent historical development. 20th-century hormone treatments and sex reassignment surgery offered people possibilities and ways of understanding themselves that were not available in the past.

Portrait of Chevalier d'Eon
Chevalier d'Eon, by Thomas Stewart, after Jean Laurent Mosnier, 1792. Chevalier d'Eon was a French spy and diplomat who lived the first part of life as a man and the later part of life as a woman. Public Domain.

Pride of Place uses the terms ‘gender crossing’ and ‘gender non-conforming’ to describe people in the past who chose to live in ways other than those associated with the gender they were assigned at birth.

Anne Bonny and Mary Read dressed in men's clothes
Anne Bonny and Mary Read dressed in men's clothes and pursued lives as pirates. Their biographies were recorded in A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates in 1724. Public Domain

Gender crossing includes ‘Mollies’, men who dressed as women and performed mock ‘molly weddings’ with other men. Gender crossing also includes women who presented as men to take advantage of employment and other opportunities. Some gender non-conforming people challenged conceptions of ‘male’ and ‘female’, ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’.

Some people in the past led lives that might resonate more closely with contemporary trans lives, but they had different understandings of themselves in their particular historical contexts. Pride of Place has used the pronoun that reflects how an individual chose to present themselves during their own lives. We have also occasionally used the gender-neutral pronoun ‘they’.

Portrait of the famous thief known as Moll Cutpurse, wearing men's clothing including a sword, with a bird, a lion and a monkey
Frontispiece to "The Life and Death of Mrs Mary Frith"; portrait of the famous thief known as Moll Cutpurse, wearing men's clothing including a sword, with a bird, a lion and a monkey. 1662 © Trustees of the British Museum

In the past, as today, there is no single LGBTQ community or identity that defines all LGBTQ people. Pride of Place therefore celebrates the widest range of gender diversity and same-sex love and desire in the past and the present.

Finding and Describing Photo Gallery

Please click on the gallery images to enlarge.

  • Trans Pride marchers at World Pride, London 2012
  • Black Pride marchers at London's Gay Pride 2013
  • Flyer for the first national Black Gay Men's Conference 'In This Our Lives'
  • 'The Bride, The Groom and Sad Love' by Simeon Solomon (1865).
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